Astronomy for Beginners

Astronomy for Beginners image
Astronomy for Beginners
Astronomy for Beginners - RAS

The Society approached Simon Armitage, the Poet Laureate, to ask him if he would compose a poem for us to mark our bicentenary year. He kindly agreed. The poem, Astronomy for Beginners, was first read on BBC radio 4's Broadcasting House Programme on Sunday 12th January, the date of our anniversary.


Astronomy for Beginners

You were eight and fishing for planets and stars, 

slopping a bucket of rain into the back yard.

You were waiting for cloudless dark, expecting 

the pinpoint reflections of Rigil Kentaurus or Mars

to crystallise under your nose, or a constellation –

whole and in tact – to glaze the surface 


like a web of frost. Or what if the moon 

grew hard and dense in the water’s depths 

like some knuckle of dinosaur bone  – you’d need

a landing net. But only Polaris proved itself 

in the liquid lens, then dissolved 

when you lifted it out on your fingertip.


A Russian telescope didn’t help: 

some camera obscura inside the tube

flipped the map of the galaxy upside down; 

in the peephole eyepiece, families dangled from ceilings

like bats, and sheep hung from green clouds

by their hooves. You were thirty by now.


Tired of the stake-out, tired of panning 

for sunspots and fool’s gold you traded 

starlight for bird life, birds with their costumes

and songs and shows. Once, in a shoulder of sand 

on Windermere’s west shore, a dunnock curtsied 

while eating bread from your open hand. 


Old brightnesses, old loves. And now you’re 

scanning again for omens and signs, apple bobbing

for hyper giants and white dwarves, calling down 

deep space onto a blank page, trawling

for angels and black holes with a glass jar, knowing 

we’re dying, knowing we’ll never make it that far. 


Where did that tin of luminous stickers go?

And the solar system mobile spinning 

on near-invisible thread?  When she left home 

you crashed out on your daughter’s bed and woke

in a Navajo cave, a remote language of light

coming steadily into creation overhead. 


Simon Armitage